How to Write Urban Fantasy – 6 Magical Tips (and an exploration of the genre)
I’m not sure when it was that I fell in love with urban fantasy. I think it was before it actually existed as a formal sub-genre of speculative fiction, or at least before it was widely recognised.
These days it’s one of the most over-stuffed markets of fantasy, and just about every new movie or TV series coming out can be categorised as some variant of urban fantasy.
The Avengers is urban fantasy. Harry Potter is urban fantasy. Twilight is urban fantasy. American Gods is urban fantasy. The genre is huge, complex, and deserving of some unpacking…
This is an epic post so here’s what we’re going to cover:
What is Urban Fantasy?
Defining Urban Fantasy Sub-Genres
6 Tips for Writing Urban Fantasy
What Exactly is Urban Fantasy?
Urban fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy fiction.
It’s defined by two things: setting and magic.
Urban Fantasy Setting
The first defining element of urban fantasy is that it has to be set within a structured community. Urban fantasy settings are typically, well, urban. Cities, towns, the ‘burbs, villages.
Does Urban Fantasy Need to Be Modern?
Most urban fantasy, as the genre works today, is set in contemporary cities and towns.
However, the time period for urban fantasy settings can vary wildly.
My urban fantasy series Guessing Tales is set in a sprawling fictional metropolis sometime in the close to the present future. Everyone still has the technologies that we use today, but there are a few futurist additions like the ability to 3D print your own clothes (available to the rather wealthy), and there’s a lot of genetically engineered food around, people pay to get mechanical body improvements, and climate change has advanced considerably.
Harry Potter is urban fantasy, starting out in early 2000s London. Even though Hogwarts is removed from that modern world, a sub-world where things are still vaguely medieval, the modern world is just a train (or a fireplace) ride away. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (and I refer to the narrative of the film, not so much the textbook source material) is urban fantasy, set in 1920s New York.
Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries (the book series that inspired TV’s True Blood) are centred around early 2000s Bon Temps, Louisiana.
Urban fantasy can be set in far flung future (though we’d have to be bordering sci-fi, depending on the type of speculative fiction employed). It can be set in Ancient Rome. Steampunk is usually urban fantasy.
Urban Fantasy Magic
Magic is critical to defining the urban fantasy genre. It can be literal magic like spells and such in Harry Potter or The Magicians. It can be magical creatures like Amelia Hutchins’ The Fae Chronicles. It can be deities like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. And all of the above.
An alien in new York – that’s urban science fiction.
An alien hanging out with a sorcerer in New York – that’s urban fantasy with science fiction (though there would be a balance of genre at play to really decide one way or the other).
In urban fantasy, the magic and the non-magic exist in the same world.
The fantastical elements exist alongside, and usually underneath, the normal world. This interplay is critical for defining the genre.
The inciting incident in a lot of urban fantasy is showing a normal (or seemingly normal) main character uncover the world of the magic. Think Quentin Coldwater discovering Brakebills in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series. Or Harry Potter learning he’s a wizard.
Co-Genres and Sub-Genres of Urban Fantasy
Like most genres, the categorical boundaries of urban fantasy are fluid and every changing. We get steampunk, vampire fiction, werewolf fiction, fantasy mystery, mythical fantasy… and the list goes on.
An urban fantasy genre distinction that trips a lot of readers new to the genre is Urban Fantasy vs. Paranormal Romance.
The core difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance is that paranormal romance features a central romantic storyline, typically involving one or more magical creatures. Urban fantasy might not.
My urban fantasy novella, Eyes of the Jaguar features a type of shapeshifter character (half human, half cat) falling in love with someone she assumes is the same species as her. It’s not paranormal romance because the relationship is not central to the plot. It’s important to the plot, but the plot isn’ founded on romance tropes. Ergo, Eyes of the Jaguar is urban fantasy. Twilight, however, is all about the romance. There is no story without the romance. Twilight is urban fantasy, but it’s also paranormal romance.
As such, it might be easier to think of urban fantasy and paranormal romance co-genres and not sub-genres.
How to Write Urban Fantasy – 6 Tips
1. Know Your Tropes
Like most strong genres, urban fantasy has its set tropes. Readers want to see tropes (even if it’s subconsciously) – it’s what keeps people coming back to reading the stuff they keep coming back to read.
Read widely in the urban fantasy market, learn to identify tropes and study why they work. Resources for this at the end of the post.
2. Build a Strong Setting
It’s all about setting. Create your setting and worldbuild the hell out of it. Even if you’re writing in a real life location, you’re about to fictionalise it by chucking some magic in there so make sure we know everything there is to know about this place. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a city. Setting is so important, it should come out as a central character.
3. Define Your Magic
What is the fantasy here? Spell casting wizards? Fairy communities? Cults of ancient gods? All of the above. Let your readers know what they’re dealing with and also how powerful it is. A lot of this can be teased out. For example, Sookie Stackhouse (The Southern Vampire Mysteries) always knew she had magic powers of some kind but didn’t discover she was a fairy until much later in the series.
4. Define your Muggles
Who are the non-magical people in your world and what role do they have in the story? In Harry Potter, the muggles are the poor old unfortunates who generally just get in the way of the wizarding world. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the muggles are the ones who are to be protected from the magic world – it’s central to the whole concept of the show, particularly in the first 3 seasons. In the Anita Blake books, the magic is public, just another counter-culture in the muggle world.Urban Fantasy is defined by setting and the interplay of magic and the everyday world.Click To Tweet
5. Define The Line Between Your Muggles And Your Magic
Typically, the muggles are weaker, in need of protection when magic nasty raises its head, but muggles often join the side of the magic – like Xander in Buffy. Quite often, as the story progresses, the muggles can form their own magical abilities, like Willow in Buffy. Or a magic becomes a muggle, like Anya in Buffy. (Yeah, I like Buffy).
Do your muggles spurn your magics? Support? Do your muggles even know about the magics? How much of the magic world is known in the non-magic world? Is it hidden like in Harry Potter, or in plain sight like in The Avengers?
6. What Your Characters Get Up To Will Define Your Sub-Genre
Characters will always define plot and genre. So, your non-magical hero is about to fall in love with your magical heroine? You’re writing paranormal romance. Are you doing battle with werewolves? Werewolf fiction. If werewolves just pop in as part of the scenery without having anything really important in the plot and the story could really just carry on without them, then it’s not werewolf fiction. Some urban fantasy series can cross genres in different books – for example The Dresden Files is crime urban fantasy overall but can change subgenres with every “creature of the week” instalment. My Guessing Tales series changes subgenre in every book. Restless: A Tale of Demonic Possession crossed into the horror genre more than Eyes of the Jaguar, whereas the forthcoming Skin is urban fantasy with strong science-fiction elements.
Resources for Learning More About Urban Fantasy
Goodreads Urban Fantasy Genre Page – Includes links to popular urban fantasy titles, subgenres and more
TV Tropes – Urban Fantasy – In-depth study of urban fantasy tropes
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